Windows 8.1 deep-dive review: Well, it's a start

The preview of Windows 8.1 brings more cohesion, less frustration and a direct login to the desktop. But is it enough to save the OS?

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Microsoft has also taken a very minor stab at trying to make the desktop and Start screen look as if they are a single, unified operating system, rather than two separate ones. A setting on the Navigation pane allows you to use the same wallpaper on the Start screen that you have on the desktop.

That's a nice piece of eye candy, but that's all it is. The two interfaces still look and work differently from one another. It's not quite like putting a lipstick on a pig; it's more like outfitting a pig and a giraffe in the same dress and hoping people will mistake them for twins.

Windows 8.1

Microsoft has tried to make the desktop and Start screen look as if they are part of the same, unified system. However...

Click to view larger image
Windows 8.1

...the two interfaces still look and work differently from one another.

Click to view larger image.

The Core navigation section of the Navigation tab has a few settings that I find a bit less useful, but you might want to give them a try. You can turn off the Windows navigation feature that displays the Charms bar when you point your cursor at the upper-right corner of the screen. You can also turn off the navigation feature that switches between your recent apps when you click the upper-left corner.

There's one more setting there, and it slightly alters the Power User menu that pops up when you press the Windows key + X or right-click the lower-left corner of the screen. It replaces the Command prompt on the menu with the Windows Power Shell command-line automation tool. That setting is turned on by default in Windows 8.1.

The Start button and shutdown

The next big question you likely have about Windows 8.1 is whether there's a Start button. Well, there is and there isn't.

If you hover your mouse over the lower-left-hand portion of the Start screen or while you're in a Modern app, the button appears. It also appears on the desktop's taskbar (without your having to hover your mouse).

But calling it a Start button is a stretch, because that implies that it does what the Start button did in previous versions of Windows -- that is, launched a menu that lets you browse and launch your apps, search, find links to various Windows locations and services, and so on. Instead, it's just a task switcher that switches you between the Start screen and whatever else you were just doing. I rarely find myself clicking the Start button for the simple reason that it doesn't really start anything -- except my blood boiling about how useless it is.

Windows 8.1

The Power User menu makes it easier to shut down or restart your device.

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However, Microsoft has taken one Start button feature from earlier Windows versions and made it more accessible in Windows 8.1: the ability to shut down, restart or put your device to sleep. Pull up the Power User menu and click Shut down to find those options.

Internet Explorer 11

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft has addressed a serious Windows 8 shortcoming: the close-to-useless Modern version of Internet Explorer 10. How seriously can you take a browser without the ability to create and use bookmarks, or that won't allow you to have more than 10 tabs open at a time?

Not very. And so I simply didn't use the Modern version of IE10.

In Windows 8.1, that's changed. Like every other browser out there, IE11 lets you have as many sites as you want open in separate tabs. And -- be still my beating heart! -- you can actually bookmark pages as Favorites. The bookmarking feature includes the ability to organize Favorites into folders.

However, the Favorites feature still isn't perfect. The Favorites in the Modern version of IE don't show up in the desktop version of IE, although the desktop IE Favorites do show up in the Modern version. That's something that should be fixed.

You can now also open tabs side by side, so that you can view more than one tab at a time, each in its own window onscreen. Normally you'll be only able to view two tabs this way, but on high-resolution displays, you can view up to four.

The new Internet Explorer also has improvements under the hood: notably, its addition of WebGL, a JavaScript API that renders interactive 3D graphics and 2D graphics. WebGL allows websites to essentially deliver the same interactive experiences as game and multimedia apps, but from inside a browser. Competing browsers such as Chrome already have this. In a world in which HTML5 and associated technologies will become standard, the lack of WebGL in Internet Explorer was a serious shortcoming. It's a shortcoming no longer.

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